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The Naming Project: Eliza

What We Know About Eliza

Eliza was born February 17, 1750. [1] She first appears in Montpelier records in 1767. James Madison Sr. recorded her name, along with the dates 1767, 1771, and 1773 on an untitled list found among his miscellaneous loose papers. The purpose of the list is unclear. It includes men, women, and women with children. Each name is followed by a list of years with no discernible pattern. Did Eliza do a particular task in those years, or work at a particular location? Did Madison Sr. issue Eliza certain provisions in those years? (A comparable list in the same collection shows the shoes distributed to the enslaved on November 2, 1787.) Although we don’t know the significance of those three years for Eliza, the list at least confirms Eliza’s presence in those years.[2]

Eliza’s name appears on this untitled list from James Madison Sr.’s miscellaneous loose notes. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia, which microfilmed the document from a private collection in 1941.

Madison Sr.’s personal property tax records[3] indicate that Eliza was present at Montpelier in 1782. She disappeared from the Orange County tax rolls in 1783, the year that Madison Sr.’s daughter Nelly Madison married Isaac Hite. Eliza – along with her children Joanna, Dianna, Demas, Pendar, and Webster – became a gift to the newly-married couple.


Eliza as a Wedding Gift

Madison Sr. gave enslaved people to each of his children as they married, an advance on their inheritance that would provide unpaid labor to help them establish their own plantations. Madison Sr. confirmed these gifts in the will he wrote in 1787: “I do also confirm to my daughter Nelly Hite the following slaves, to wit; Jerry, Jemmy, Sally, Milley Eliza and her children Joanna, Dianna, Demas, Pender and Webster, also Truelove and her children, Peggy, Priscilla, Henry and Katey and their increase since the first day of March 1783 and for the future.”[4]

Eliza and her children were listed in James Madison Sr.’s will, along with other enslaved people he had already given to his daughter Nelly Hite. Courtesy of Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.

The March 1, 1783 date marked the formal transfer of ownership for Eliza, her children, and the other nine enslaved people, not long after the Hites’ wedding on January 2, 1783. It was probably late winter or early spring when Eliza left Montpelier and traveled to the Hites’ plantation in the upper Shenandoah Valley, Belle Grove. Eliza may have felt relieved that her children – ranging in age from 10-year-old Joanna to 2-year-old Webster – remained with her, but whom did she leave behind? Were Eliza’s parents still at Montpelier? Did Eliza’s husband remain in Orange county, either at Montpelier or at a neighboring plantation? Or was Eliza married to Jerry or Jemmy? What were Eliza’s kinship ties with the other enslaved people who made the move to Belle Grove?

After Eliza and her children arrived at Belle Grove, Isaac Hite recorded their birthdates in his commonplace book. [5] (Hite’s commonplace book survives, but any records of vital statistics that Madison Sr. kept for the enslaved community, do not.) The commonplace book includes several lists of the people the Hites enslaved. The first list includes Eliza’s name with her birthdate of February 17, 1750, as well as the names and birthdates of her children and the other enslaved people who came from Montpelier. When Webster’s name appears three other times (spelled “Webber,” but with a consistent birthdate of September 18, 1781), Eliza’s name (spelled “Lysa” or “Lisa”) appears in parenthesis each time to indicate that she was his mother.


Family Losses

The 1783 move from Montpelier to Belle Grove – the separation from the larger Montpelier enslaved community – was a significant, possibly traumatic, moment in Eliza’s life. It was not the last time that Eliza would experience a rift in her family, as Hite’s commonplace book reveals.

In late 1790, Hite went back to the page where he had first written Demas’s name and birthdate. Under the header “How Disposed” he wrote: “Exchanged with George Hite.” George Hite was a cousin who lived in what is now West Virginia. With the departure of her 13-year-old son, Eliza’s family was fragmented again.

The birth of Eliza’s first grandchild was recorded in the commonplace book on April 26, 1796. Eliza’s daughter Joanna gave birth to a daughter, named for her grandmother. Sadly, Baby Eliza lived only 13 months. Her date of death was recorded on May 23, 1797.

History Repeats

Hite also recorded the births of two children to Eliza’s daughter Pendar: Willis in 1797 and Charlotte in 1799. At a later date, Hite went back to the page where he had recorded Pendar’s name and birthdate. In the column titled “How Disposed” he wrote: “given to Madison.” He further noted that Pendar’s children Willis and Charlotte were “given to Madison.” Charles, who was born to Dianna in 1807 and was Eliza’s only other surviving grandchild, also had the notation after his name, “Gave to Madison.”

“Madison” was Isaac and Nelly Hite’s son, James Madison Hite, who married in 1815 and established his own family home at Guilford in Clarke county, Virginia. Possibly Isaac and Nelly Hite sent Pendar, Willis, Charlotte, and Charles as a gift to their newly-married son. Where Eliza and her children had once been a wedding gift to Isaac and Nelly, Eliza now saw her daughter and grandchildren given as gifts to the next generation of enslavers.

Isaac Hite never made a notation for Eliza in the final column “How Disposed.” Presumably she spent the rest of her life enslaved at Belle Grove.


[1] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 28, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 28, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 5, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 5, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 28, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.